Biharis: Almost Forgotten for 20 Years


December 29, 1991|By PAULA R. NEWBERG

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the civil war in Pakistan that led to the independence of Bangladesh. That was was a horrific humanitarian disaster, even by the standards of a world grown accustomed to tragedy.

Responding to newspaper images of starving children and war-torn villages, many Americans knew it mainly through George Harrison's and Bob Dylan's concert for Bangladesh.

Despite the war's formal end in 1971, it continues for refugees still living in camps two decades later. Although prisoners of war were repatriated in the years immediately following the peace treaty, almost 500,000 Pakistanis were left in Bangladesh. Some 200,000 resettled in Pakistan in the 1970s. But 250,000 remain in Bangladeshi camps.

These are not traditional refugees: They did not flee their country during war, but found themselves on the wrong side of the border at war's end.

Called "Biharis" after the province from which they originally hailed, they think of themselves as "stranded Pakistanis." They were Pakistanis before the 1971 war, supported the Pakistan government during the war, and today continue to define themselves as Pakistani citizens.

The Pakistan government, loath to upset ethnic and political balances at home, refrains from providing sanctuary. Bihari citizenship rights have been consistently denied for 20 years.

Bangladesh has been a relatively patient but poverty-stricken host. It has offered citizenship to those who renounce their claims to a Pakistani passport, but few Biharis have accepted the offer.

The conviction that Pakistan must honor their citizenship claims has left the Biharis on shaky moorings. In Dhaka and Chittagong, cities already burdened with overpopulated slums and inadequate infrastructure, Biharis live in squalid inner-city camps only minimally supported by international aid agencies and foreign donors. The camps barely sustain their burgeoning populations.

Some Biharis migrate to Pakistan illegally, a silent migration that leaves the camps dominated by children who, like Palestinian and Afghan counterparts, know no other life.

Underlying Pakistan's reluctance to accept Biharis is discomfort with its war loss in 1971. Pakistan's governments since then have ignored the problem.

Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arranged for some repatriation after the war, but his efforts weren't serious. Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq raised Bihari hopes by speaking about repatriation. But his military government, which could have imposed a solution, did little. While prime minister, Benazir Bhutto refused to meet Biharis in Dhaka, and she has rejected their claims since leaving office.

Today, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demurs from his explicit campaign promise to underwrite the Bihari resettlement. Ethnic Sindhis, in whose province refugee communities have settled, object strenuously to diluting their majority, and fear competition for jobs and benefits.

The federal government alternately lets the issue simmer and occasionally stirs the pot of ethnic unrest to excuse its own inaction. When pushed, the government suggests it cannot ensure the safety of Biharis if they return en masse. Still, the prime minister says sites are reserved in central Punjab for new Bihari communities.

Pakistan claims destitution whenever resettlement is discussed, though its contribution to 3 million Afghan refugees for a decade has been enormous. Resettling Biharis is costly. But donors have offered to supplement Pakistan's obligation, in part with funds used to sustain the Bangladeshi camps.

Resettlement is a moral issue. No government should be able to take away citizenship from its people, particularly on the basis of ethnic or sectarian membership. To allow this to continue sets a dangerous precedent for Pakistanis.

Pakistan must recognize the right of Biharis to Pakistani citizenship, and remove obstacles to fulfilling it. Only then can the process of resettlement, and assurance for migrant safety, be considered.

The international community must be included in this effort: Funds may be beyond Pakistan's capacity, but they are needed only once.

Simply because Biharis live quietly -- without hijacking airplanes or taking hostages or violently threatening their neighbors -- is no reason to ignore them. This sad chapter in the subcontinent's history must be put to rest, and the 1971 war truly ended for all involved.

Paula Newberg teaches international affairs at Columbia University. She wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.

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